224. RELUCTANT WITNESS .
|"However, each time a death certificate was mentioned, he dived for cover".|
Walter Gill, Petermann Journey. Pg. 19.
It is now fairly well established in Lasseter lore that Bob Buck was reluctant to sign any papers or statements relating to Lasseter's death, and the inference has grown over the years that all was not as it seemed with Bucks account of his discovery and burial of Lasseter's body. Jack Bailey, the Chairman of C.A.G.E. blamed Buck's dithering and ignorance for delaying the Second Expedition, Fred Blakeley the leader of the First Expedition was sure that Buck had assisted Lasseter out of the desert and on his way to America. Walter Gill who was closest to Buck during that critical fortnight in Alice Springs in May 1931, wondered why no inquest would be held into Lasseter's death, "But what of the questions that were to remain unanswered? Serious questions."
Jack Bailey wrote his account of the Lasseter Reef saga some sixteen years after events in Central Australia, he mentions that C.A.G.E. had insured Lasseter for £500, however the claim against Lasseter's life was refused by the Insurance Company until "a certificate of death by some qualified person", was produced. "When Buck reported he had found Lasseter's body or what appeared to be Lasseter's body, the Directors asked him to sign a declaration to this effect, but Buck refused to do this. He said he could not swear whether the skeleton was that of a white or black man." Bailey was writing for his posterity and place in history and not for the truth of the matter, just two paragraphs earlier in his memoirs he gives the real reason for a formal death certificate. The Baileys had approached the Bank of Australasia to recover Lasseter's sealed directions to the reef, the invisible ink directions, "The Bank Manager said are you sure he is dead? If so I want to see a death certificate from some qualified person."
Fred Blakeley, the leader of the First Expedition, had a very low opinion of Bob Buck from the outset, he was certainly at the lower end of the social ladder and not to be relied on. At some point during the formation of the Second Expedition, Blakeley happened to meet Buck in a Sydney hotel and took the opportunity to ask a few pointed questions. Buck responded readily enough until he realised who he was talking to. Blakeley wrote that Buck was quite upset, "for he had many warnings not to talk to me". Bucks plea, "You won't crab a fellow's pitch, will you". disgusted Blakeley who considered exposing Buck and the Company to the Press but stayed his pen for the sake of Lasseter's family. Blakeley never elaborated on Buck's allegedly underhanded 'pitch' but added that Buck hoped to keep the scam alive for a few more weeks to build up sufficient capital to restock his station.
At the conclusion of his narrative, Dream Millions, Blakeley emphasises his doubts about, "Bob Buck's story of the finding of Lasseter's body ~ The death of the man was never investigated by the police. They received Buck's report, and from what I can learn, they did not believe it ~ I ask: Why was it not investigated? Bob Buck's story is much to thin and, with so much in doubt, I cannot believe it". Blakeley also held the unshakable belief that Lasseter did not die in central Australia but was guided out of the Petermanns by Buck and put onto the well used stock route to Eucla on the Great Australian Bight and from there to Western Australia and then to America to become a Pastor in a Mormon church.
Perhaps much of the persistent rumour surrounding Buck and what really happened out in the Petermanns in March 1931 is due to Walter Gill, who was close by the Bushman's side for several weeks, and in particular in Alice Springs from 4th to the 9th of May. Gill was holidaying at Hermannsburg when Buck returned from the West with the news of Lasseter's fate, and fortunately for history, Gill, who had a sharpish pen and keen insight, left a revealing account of Buck the man and less of the legend. As he recounted his journey, Gill made his first assessment of Robert Henry Buck, "I thought he talked easily, perhaps to easily. He struck me as being an accommodating type." Out of curiosity Gill agreed to drive Buck to Alice Springs for his interview with the Government Resident. By now Vic Carrington had become cautious when dealing with matters Lasseter and C.A.G.E. and Buck had been summoned to town to give a full account of Lasseter's death and burial, before any death certificate was signed.
Gill, who was moderately wealthy and at loose ends, and Buck, forever broke, were hopeful that the Government Resident would call an inquest into Lasseter's death and this may mean an expedition to the Petermanns with Buck as guide and Gill as enthusiastic supernumerary. On Wednesday morning the 6th, Gill grilled a severely hung-over Bob Buck, "After a deal of hedging, he admitted that his interview with the police had not gone the way he had expected ~ he said sheepishly that no official action would be taken regarding Lasseter." While the decision may have disappointed Buck, it astounded Gill who castigated officialdom, meaning Carrington, for leaving several serious questions unanswered. "Was Lasseter dead? Was there a grave in the Petermann? If so whose? Was the man in it murdered? If not, how did he die? If he was murdered, who killed him? And so on...and on." What rumours or insights caused Gill to ponder those questions are unknown, nevertheless he forged ahead with his own interview of Buck, who proved to be "as twisty as a creek in the Channel Country" when it came to questions about written statements and death certificates.
In time other accounts of Buck's shifty opportunism came to light; Walter Smith, a notable Centralian bushman of the era, recorded that the Aboriginals first buried Lasseter and shortly after the body was disinterred by Buck to recover Lasseter's gold specimens and personal effects. Ron Studdy-Clift, a Central Australian Police Officer during Buck's later years and on good terms with the aging bushman, accused him of burying, "a great conglomeration of kangaroo bones" for a sound enough reason of course, unless Buck buried something he would not be paid by C.A.G.E. Frank Clune in his travelogue, The Fortune Hunters confronted Buck with the rumours of his involvement in an insurance fraud and Lasseter's death, Buck objected strongly to this insinuation, "I'm 61 years old, and I've been in the Centre all me life, but I've never met the man game to tell me to me face that I'm a swindler and a crook". Clune restored peace with another bottle of beer but didn't expand on the rumours.
So Buck stands accused of delaying insurance claims and perhaps fraudulent involvement. Frustrating plans for a second expedition because he wouldn't swear with certainty that he had buried an Aboriginal or European. Blakeley was convinced Buck was lying in his statement to the police, his conviction based on the character of Buck and lack of evidence, as no inquest was held and confirmed by several eyewitness accounts of Lasseter being seen in America. Strangely enough, Gill never detailed the causes for his suspicions and doubts aroused by Bucks evasiveness, and finally conceded that the fellow had simply done his job in finding Lasseter and reporting the matter, any further action was in the hands of the Police, who apparently chose to do nothing more than accept Bucks written statement. One might conclude there is sufficient evidence to suggest Bob Buck was up to something dodgy when he buried Lasseter, hence his apparent reluctance to sign any oath sworn documents or statements relating to Lasseter's death.
Contrary to history as writ, Buck had no qualms about making any statements or signing any documents, he readily signed a brief, straightforward and perfectly legal statement in front of the Assistant Coroner for Central Australia, H. A. Heinrich at Hermannsburg on Anzac Day 1931, the news was released to the Press by Arthur Blakeley three days later. Heinrich and Carrington and the Police had no doubts that the circumstances surrounding Lasseter's death and burial as stated by Buck were quite plausible and he had returned with sufficient evidence to satisfy them that the body was Lasseter. It would be administrative folly, if not irresponsible, to send an expedition to the Petermanns to establish the obvious, another sad example of the inexperienced and foolish reaching beyond their capabilities and paying the ultimate price. Gill and many others misinterpreted Buck's edginess while he was in Alice Springs in early May, it was nothing to do with burying Lasseter.
Buck was nervous because he had changed a significant detail in his original story to Carrington about finding Lasseter's claim pegs, on the 2nd of May Carrington wrote to Home Affairs giving full details of Lasseter's death and burial and several valid reasons for not holding an inquest. Carrington also made a point of expanding on an earlier telegram, "Mr. Lasseter also wrote that he had located and pegged the reef and taken a photo of the datum peg although he felt sure that the natives would remove the peg. No trace of any pegs was found by Mr. Buck nor were any specimens found." Nine days later Carrington wrote to Canberra with an update on the Lasseter affair, the last paragraph of his letter read, "Mr. Buck has now informed me that he did find the pegs Mr. Lasseter put in but is unable to say whether the country is gold bearing." By changing his story, albeit in a clumsy fashion, Buck had created a doubt about Lasseter's claim that could only be settled by another expedition, lead by Buck of course, and the Baileys exploited the doubt to defraud Leslie G Bridge.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
|Bailey, John. The History of Lasseter's Reef, pg.6. Mitchell Library, ML A2753. Blakeley, Fred. Dream Millions, pgs.180,185,186. Clune, Frank. The Fortune Hunters, pgs 47-50. Gill, Walter. Petermann Journey, pgs. 3-19. Kimber, R. G. Man from Arltunga, pgs.100-103. National Archives Australia, Title, Central Australian Gold Exploration Synd. Assistance to Prospect. Series No. A431. Control Symbol, 1948/1143. Barcode, 68988.|